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Driving past the Montana Rescue Mission, I shouldn't have been surprised to see an elderly gentleman with a long, white beard, but something about this particular gentleman struck me as familiar.

Half a block later, it hit me: it was my old friend the sage. I went back and found him sitting on a bench, with 15 or 20 other men, in the alley alongside the mission.

"Well, well," he said when he saw me. "Don't tell me you'll be sharing our quarters, too."

No, I explained, I only stopped because I saw him there and was rather surprised. His usual abode was a cave high under the Rims across the Yellowstone River from Coulson Park. A couple of years ago he had briefly tried living in a downtown condo, but the last time I saw him, about this time last year, he had reverted to his sagelike existence in the cave.

He must have seen the confusion on my face as I struggled to frame a question that wasn't either insulting or condescending.

"No doubt you are wondering how I came to exchange my solitary habitation for these communal accommodations," he said. "Come, let us drink."

Catching up

Seated a few minutes later over a mug of Ethiopian joe, the sage explained what had happened since I'd seen him last.

"It was the global financial crisis," he said. "My needs are few, as you know, but they were met by a handful of disciples, all of whom suddenly found themselves needing to cut back severely on their expenditures.

"I might still have been able to continue on my own, reducing my needs to the barest minimum, but I soon found myself without even a home."

"What?" I said. "Somebody foreclosed on your cave?"

"Not exactly," he replied. "There was no cost involved, but the kind man who owned the property that gave access to my dwelling was faced with the prospect of having to sell it, and he thought it would be better if I departed, lest a prospective buyer stumble upon my grotto, with me inside."

"I see. But surely you had other resources to call on."

"If you're talking about financial resources, no," he said. "After my brief experience with condo living, I decided to go back to my old lifestyle, which was to live so completely in the moment as to forget both the past and the future, and to merge with the infinite. Under the circumstances, a bank account, much less an IRA, was out of the question."

He paused and smoothed his beard, into which a moment before he had spilled a bit of coffee, then continued: "As for friends, I suppose I might have found a place to stay, even temporarily, but the prospect of staying at the mission while my affairs sorted themselves out didn't alarm me in the least. On the contrary, I thought the experience would be good for me. As I have said in the past, solitude is good for the soul, but all things in moderation. I need to mix with my fellow creatures from time to time."

A few distractions

"So, how's life at the mission?"

"Warm, for one thing," he said. "Rather warmer than I'm used to. And certainly louder. I never before appreciated how profoundly quiet that cave was at night. Sleeping in a dormitory with 50 other chaps - why, you have never heard such a cacophony of grunting, groaning, throat-clearing and coughing, such rustling, scratching, belching and God only knows what else."

"And the food?"

"Good lord, the food!" he said. "When a man is used to a few figs and a crust of bread, all those potatoes and noodles are a dangerous indulgence." Saying which, he patted his belly, which did seem to have grown some since I'd seen him last.

"But all things considered," he went on, "I can't complain. This is the worst time of year to be alone, and the rough camaraderie here, where everyone mingles and yet respects his neighbor's privacy, is a wonderful thing."

"But surely you'd like to get back …"

"There you go again," he said. "The point is, I don't want to 'get back' to anything, or to imagine what might happen the week after tomorrow. I will trust to luck and to fate and to a new secretary of the Treasury, and whatever happens will not rob me of my ability to find myself at peace with the universe."

And then it was time for him to go. He insisted on paying for my coffee. How could I say no?

Contact Ed Kemmick at ekemmick@billingsgazette.com or 657-1293.

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